Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Mystery Of The Pterodactyl's Nest, Solved

This nest once had a baby in it. What kind of baby? Read on.

The mystery of the pterodactyl's nest has been solved.

Last month, I posted about a giant nest that Daisy and I had found on a cliff top in the village of Únětice.

No one could figure out what kind of a nest it was, or even if it was a nest. There were no feathers around, nor any droppings.

My friend James Gogarty, who lives in the neighboring town of Roztoky, has finally solved the mystery. He writes:

"Czech scientists have recently discovered the existence of the once-thought-extinct central Bohemian condor.. .. No no, sorry.

"According to the mayor of Únětice, Vladimír Vytiska, it is the remnants of a photo shoot by the famous Czech photographer Jan Pohribný. Some time before our ever-exploring Grant stumbled across this puzzle, Pohribný had constructed the nest and shot it along with an appropriately placed infant to create the image of (the Czech/English) shared expression 'leaving the nest.'

"So there we have it. No mysterious pterodactyl. Simply a child leaving home...

"Upon looking at Pohribný's website, he appears to enjoy combing nature shots with surreal imagery, several of which were shot around Únětice."

The world's ornithologists can sleep tonight in peace.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A New King Is Crowned (Best Red Wine In Prague For $5)

A (plastic) bottle of red. A (plastic) bottle of white. Whatever kind of mood you're in tonight.

As someone pointed out in a comment on one of my earlier blog posts, one of the best ways to find drinkable, but inexpensive, wines in Prague is to seek out wine bars and shops that offers wines from the barrel.

I live in the village of Černý Vůl, west of Prague, and the nearest place I know of to buy wines from the barrel is in Suchdol. It's a little kiosk along Route 241 called, wonderfully, Relax Vine. The proprietor is very friendly and offers small tastings of all of his offerings.

The wines on offer from the barrel on my most recent visit were from Argentina and Macedonia. I decided to sample both a red and a white -- a flowery, crisp Torrontes (65 CZK, or $4, per liter) and a chewy, dark Cabernet Sauvignon (60 CZK, or $3.75, per liter), both from Argentina.

I have no idea from which vintner the wines originate. Unfortunately, my Czech is pretty awful, and certainly not good enough to engage in a wine discussion.

In the end, though, I liked them so much I bought 1.5 liters of each. The wines are poured from the barrel by spigots into plastic soda bottles. The packaging, and the price, is conducive to drinking all of the contents in one sitting.

On the Wino-Meter, I'd give both of them a solid 7 out of 10. (They'd normally get an 8, but I'm taking a point off since they're not widely available.)

The Relax Vine kiosk in the village of Suchdol.

In other tastings of late, I tried two more budget wines from Tesco -- a California Cabernet Sauvignon, described on the bottle as a "medium-bodied smooth red wine with rich black currant flavors," and an Italy Sicilian Red Wine, described only as a "dry red wine."

The Sicilian Red was drinkable, but entirely forgettable. There is simply nothing to recommend it, except the price, which, if memory serves me correctly (I've misplaced my notes), was around 55 CZK, or about $3.50 per bottle. I'll give it a 5 on the old Wino-Meter.

I have to admit, though, to being pretty impressed by the Cabernet Sauvignon, especially considering its price, which was also around 55 CZK, or about $3.50 per bottle, I believe.

The wine is remarkably meaty, and eminently quaffable. I'd say that, especially considering the price, it's as good, or even slightly better, than my previous favorite $5 bottle -- the Cabernet or Merlot from Brise de France (which usually retails for around 75 CZK, or $4.75 a bottle).

As with the Brise de France, it's not going to blow your socks off, but it's entirely respectable, and you won't be embarrassed to serve it to guests. If only the bottle had a different label. That whole "Selected By Tesco" text is pretty cheesy looking. The Brise de France has the upper hand in the label department.

In the end, I'll give the California Cabernet Sauvignon by Tesco a score of 8.5 on the Wino-Meter, which makes it the new Best Ride Wine (Widely Available) In Prague For $5 Or Less.

A new champion has been crowned, but the quest, as ever, continues.

Your thoughts welcomed.

A new king is crowned.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

'A Faith Of Verbs'

"This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek. To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers."
-- Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and author

Monday, May 12, 2008

Feeding The Fascination With Trdelnik (Trdlo)

Making trdelnik at a food stall at a medieval festival in Okoř, near Prague. (See video below.)

Last summer, on my Prague Bike Blog, as part of a post about a cycling trip I took to the castle at Karlštejn, I mentioned that I'd enjoyed a trdelnik (or trdlo), an unusually shaped and unfortunately named, but nevertheless quite delicious, Czech pastry.

The pastry is made by wrapping a slice of sweet dough around a metal cylinder, which is then used to flatten the dough, like a rolling pin. Still wrapped around the cylinder, the dough is then rolled in sugar and cinnamon and nuts and placed over an open flames or glowing coals, where it is heated until brown.

Then it's sprinkled with more sugar or cinnamon and such and served hot. It kind of looks like an edible brown beer mug with the bottom missing.

Anyway ...

Since then, I've been amazed at how many people come to the Biking Blog because they've searched on Google or elsewhere for trdelnik. The pastry appears to have caught the public's fancy in some way. It's unusual, and it tastes good. That's a winning combination, I guess.

Even Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of the pop group Franz Ferdinand, found the subject irresistible. He wrote about what he called these "sweet chimneys" in one of the food columns he used to write for "The Guardian" while he was on tour.

I was in the Czech village of Okoř last weekend, at a medieval festival at the 14th-century castle ruins there, and they were making trdelnik, and there must have been 20 people in line to buy one hot off the cylinder. And I'm sure 19 out of the 20 were locals, not tourists.

In the interest of feeding the fascination with this treat, I decided to film a little video at the trdelnik stall that shows in greater detail how they're made.

There's at least one website out there that offers a recipe for making trdelnik at home.

As they say in the Czech Republic, "Dobrou chut'!"

Thursday, May 1, 2008

(Meeting) The Man Who Fell To Earth

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger shakes hands with a mere mortal during a visit to Prague.

"As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary."
-- Ernest Hemingway

I met one of my heroes the other day. In fact, I had a beer with him.

His name is Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, and he's one of history's bravest men. Many people consider Colonel Kittinger to have been the first man in space. I'm one of them.

In fact, the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. just awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award, putting him in the company of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. They've also created a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian on Kittinger's career.

What did Colonel Kittinger do?

In a nutshell, he rode a giant helium balloon into space and then, wearing an early version of a spacesuit, he jumped -- 103,000 feet (31,333 meters), or almost 20 miles, above the desert of New Mexico. Colonel Kittinger still holds the world's record for the highest parachute jump, the longest freefall (more than four and a half minutes), and the highest balloon ascent.

And he did all of this in August 1960. He went up in a balloon because no airplane or rocket could yet ascend to that height. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wouldn't make his trip into space until April 1961.

Colonel Kittinger's heroics as a pre-astronaut in Project Excelsior furthered research into how man could survive in the vacuum of space. His jump also perfected the technology that went into ejector seats in high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft, such as the Gemini program.

On the way up, part of his pressure suit developed a leak, and his right hand swelled up with blood to twice its normal size, but Colonel Kittinger didn't tell anyone on the ground because he knew the mission would be scrubbed if he did. Even though he didn't know what would happen to him and his suit, he kept on soaring upward.

Colonel Kittinger titled his autobiography "The Long, Lonely Leap."

I dedicated a previous post on this blog to Colonel Kittinger because I wanted to spread the word about his feats and share my obsession with the remarkable film of him jumping out of the gondola, the inky blackness of space enveloping him, the curvature of the Earth clearly visible below.

A cover story in the August 29, 1960, issue of "Life" magazine calls Colonel Kittinger a "new space hero" and says the images of his leap are "some of the most exciting pictures of a man's daring ever made."

He is quoted in "Life" as telling ground control, "There is a hostile sky above me. Man may live in space, but he will never conquer it."

Colonel Kittinger was kind enough to autograph this August 1960 copy of "Life" magazine, with a picture of him in free-fall on the cover.

The Boards of Canada, an electronic music duo from Scotland, used footage of Colonel Kittinger's jump for their video of a song called "Dayvan Cowboy." The footage of Colonel Kittinger in the first half of the video is all real. It then devolves into a bit of fantasy, but the music complements Colonel Kittinger's experience perfectly:

If those jumps weren't enough (he did three in all, the first two from slightly lower altitudes), he went on to fly almost 500 combat missions over Vietnam before being shot down over North Vietnam in 1972 after shooting down a MiG-21. He was captured and held for 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, along with U.S. Senator John McCain and others.

In that first blog post, I mentioned that, even though I'm a professional journalist, I couldn't muster the courage to call Colonel Kittinger and interview him.

Well, I finally found the courage, and called him up at his home in the United States, and he answered the phone, and we had a fantastic conversation. I was buzzing for hours afterward.

Incredibly, when I told Colonel Kittinger that I was calling from Prague, he said, "I'm going to be in Prague in a few weeks."

Just imagine how I would have felt if I'd waited a month or so to call him. "You're in Prague? Well, I was just in Prague a few weeks ago!"

I think I would have jumped off of something very high if that had happened.

As it turns out, Colonel Kittinger and his wife, Sherry, were coming to Prague as part of a European tour of aviation and military sites. Their visit to the Czech Republic included a trip to the aviation museum in Kbely, in northeast Prague, as well as a tour of the castle and the Old Town. It wasn't his first visit to Prague. He flew a hot-air balloon over the city a few years ago.

Colonel Kittinger was kind enough to take a few moments out of his visit to have an early evening drink with Daisy, Emma, and me, as well as Stewart and his two boys.

What a thrill. He even said we could call him Joe (although I find that difficult to do). I'm in awe of this man.

After the Vietnam War ended and he was released from prison camp, Colonel Kittinger went on to work for Martin Marietta and founded ballooning and barnstorming companies in the United States.

In 1984, he became the first person to fly a balloon solo across the Atlantic Ocean -- from Maine to Italy. And he's still flying biplanes and balloons, at the age of 79, and traveling tirelessly around Europe.

Now that man's got gusto.

Thanks, Colonel Kittinger, for a meeting I will never forget.

Stewart was as thrilled as I was to meet Colonel Kittinger.